Last November, when George W. Bush traveled
to London for an official state visit, pundits wondered if the
timing could possibly have been worse. Both Bush and his British counterpart
Tony Blair were then "mired in slumping approval ratings" because of the shoddy
state of occupied Iraq. The American public would get a taste of how their supreme
leader is perceived abroad, with televised footage of anti-Bush protests
and denunciations from
the likes of Ken Livingston, Mayor of London, who called Bush "the greatest
threat to life on this planet."
Nevertheless, Bush slogged through, leaving only a huge security bill and a
few million disgruntled Londoners in his wake. In the end, while his tour of
Britain did little to restore the luster to American diplomacy, it didn't hurt
it much either.
Those must seem like the good old days now. In June, Bush is heading
back to Europe. He's set to hit four major countries on what will certainly
be the most scrutinized tour of his presidency. Now, the continuing
disintegration of Iraq and the unfolding prisoner torture scandal have only
disdain many Europeans feel for the already unpopular commander-in-chief.
For sure, the timing is definitely worse.
Perhaps the president's advisors feel that a month of diplomacy in June will
pay dividends for Bush. Pressing the flesh, symbolic photo opportunities,
carefully-scripted contrition, and hours of backroom negotiation – what's not to
like about it?
Yet after a closer investigation of the prevailing mood in Europe, one has to
ask: George, why bother?
The New York Times Fingers the Pulse
Just what kind of a continent will Dubya descend
onto in June? European sentiment towards President Bush is revealed by a recent
New York Times survey. According to this report, support for the
American president is abysmal:
"…In poll after poll, Europeans have shown themselves to be fervently
anti-Bush. In Britain, America's staunchest ally in the war in Iraq, a poll of
1,007 people taken last month for The Times of London by the British polling
company Populus found support for Senator John Kerry over President Bush by a
margin of 56 to 22 percent.
From America, a poll of people in nine nations conducted by the Pew Research
Center for the People and the Press in March found that opinion of the president
and, by extension, the United States, had plummeted across Europe since Mr. Bush
took office. In France, the poll found, the president had an 85 percent negative
rating; in Britain, 57 percent; in Germany 85 percent; and in Russia, 60
Bush's unilateralism and simplistic view of the world were especially
decried. Russian political commentator Aleksandr Yanov castigated Bush's famous
"those who are not with us are against us" dictum as a reification of the
"Bolshevik principle." And according to Guillaume Parmentier of the French
Institute of Foreign Relations,
"…the idea that you have a leader of the U.S. who's not interested in
listening to his allies is important in the way people perceive Bush… he has a
very simplistic view of the world, which we find difficult to accept. In fact,
that we find dangerous."
While Bush has been able to count on conservatives such as President Silvio
Berlusconi of Italy, this constituency base, too, is being eroded. Sergio
Romano, a former Italian ambassador to NATO, added that besides Bush's
"understandable" unpopularity with liberals, "…he's not very popular with the
conservatives or moderates either." The same result is being found in England,
where even the traditional conservative allies of the American president, the
Tories, are leery: "George Bush scares the hell out of me," said one. Another
averred that "Bush is a man who might wail at the moon. I don't feel comfortable
The cumulative European dislike for Bush and his foreign policy were summed
up by Britain's "left-leaning" Guardian:
"…Senator Kerry carries the hopes not just of millions of Americans but of
millions of British well-wishers, not to mention those of nations throughout
Europe and the world… Nothing in world politics would make more difference to
the rest of us than a change in the White House."
Italy: Blessing the Cursed
George W. Bush's European odyssey begins in Italy
on June 4, where he will relive the liberation of
Rome from the Nazis. Even if the field of victory is not Iraq, this 60th
anniversary special at least gives him the chance to symbolically liberate something.
Things are not looking good, however. Italian anti-globalization groups have
vowed mass demonstrations. And the Italian opposition is calling for Bush's
visit to be scrapped altogether, amidst continued public outrage over the Abu
Ghraib prison scandal. Even though Bush can count on a warm reception from ally
Silvio Berlusconi, members of the latter's government have offered withering
criticism this week of America's occupation of Iraq. Minister for European
affairs Rocco Buttiglione has even called
for the resignation of top American leaders over the Abu Ghraib
"'…Politicians had the responsibility to monitor (the situation) but they
didn't and they should resign,' Buttiglione said. 'The U.S. government should
show how a democracy works. Political officials should pay politically and the
guilty should go to prison.'"
The uproar in Italy has been exacerbated by new suspicions that Berlusconi
lied to the people when he said his government had no
knowledge of prisoner abuse until the US media broke the story late last
official line was contradicted this week in interviews with the top Italian
military leaders in Iraq. Leading newspaper La Reppublica quoted Gen.
Francesco Paolo Spagnuolo as saying prisoners' "most basic rights" were violated
at Nasiriyah prison, where Italian soldiers are based under British command. And
Berlusconi probably knew, according to the general, who "…said a complaint was
filed with Iraqi judicial authorities and the Italian government was informed
'through the usual channels without a written report.'"
Even more damning was the testimony of Italian colonel Carmelo Burgio, who
told Corriere della Sera Thursday that his troops' inspections of the
prison had revealed "signs of torture on detainees," and that these findings
were passed on to higher authorities. And, in contradiction of Defense Minister
Antonio Martino's official statements, Amnesty International's Italian chapter
also claims that it had informed the government of prisoner abuses. Finally, in
a television interview on Tuesday,
"…the widow of one of the 19 Italians killed in an explosion at the Italian
military headquarters in Nasiriyah last November said that her husband had seen
evidence of violence and abuse against Iraqi prisoners."
These new revelations have angered the Italian people and helped the
opposition win a major concession. After his return from Washington on May 20,
Berlusconi will be obliged to hold a parliamentary hearing on removing troops
from Iraq. Recent polls have suggested around 52 percent of Italians are in
favor of removing the country's 3,000-strong contingent, and as reaction to the
prisoner abuse scandal- now, encompassing yet another Iraqi prison- grows this
percentage can only rise.
While the American president had hoped to conclude his visit with a beatific
blessing, his scheduled meeting with the Pope
promises to be just as bad:
"…John Paul II is expected to warn President George W. Bush when the two men
meet on June 4 that his policy in Iraq is wrong and the actions of US troops are
damaging efforts to bring religions closer together, a senior Vatican official
These comments, made by Cardinal Pio Laghi, reveal the vast chasm that exists
between Bush's policy and the pontiff's. According to Laghi, Bush was so anxious
to meet with the Pope that he even changed his schedule to do so. The Cardinal
expressed some ambivalence on his decision. "…If ever there were a difficult
time to ask for an audience with the pope it is now," he said, and proceeded to
recite a litany of quite pointed complaints:
"…Referring to revelations this month of torture and humiliating mistreatment
of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers, the cardinal asked 'how is it possible to
remain in Iraq if these abuses continue?'
…The cardinal said he also expected the pope to tell Bush that his policies
in the Middle East in general were not helping the cause of peace.
'We must above all build cultural understanding between peoples and I do not
believe that our American friends are doing that,' he said. 'Bombing mosques,
going into holy places, putting women soldiers in contact with naked men shows a
lack of understanding of the Muslim world which I can only call surprising,' he
'We must build bridges with Islam, not dig trenches between us,' he went on.
'And we must give top priority to the Israeli-Palestinian question, which is the
root cause of terrorism.'
The pope would tell Bush that 'the fight against terrorism must not be purely
repressive and punitive but must also proceed from the elimination of its
causes, which are rooted in injustice.'"
If ever there was an utter and complete repudiation of Bush's foreign policy,
it was this. In criticizing the US occupation of Iraq, its military tactics,
America' favoring of Israel, and the entire rationale on which Bush's war on
terror is being justified, Cardinal Laghi set out pretty clearly that the
president can't expect much love from the leader of Christendom come
France: A Lukewarm Reception
After the Italian job, Bush moves on to France
– yes, that's right, evil France
– where he will confer with President Jacques Chirac and storm the beaches of
Normandy along with other world leaders on the 60th anniversary of
D-Day. While the French
are optimistically talking about this as a "tremendous occasion" for repairing
relations between their country and America, we shouldn't count on any great
Jean-Maurice Ripert of the French Foreign Ministry optimistically speculated
"…whatever the differences were, or still could exist on some issues, we are
still allies and we are still working together. We can live with the idea that
our closest friend and ally, the United States of America, does not always agree
Yet despite these warm words, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has
bluntly stated that America must "…accept that its occupation of Iraq will
end" on June 30 when the expected handover of power in Iraq takes place:
"'…We have to make sure that this government has all the levers of
sovereignty and control,' Barnier said. 'What we need is for the Americans and
the occupation forces to understand and accept this real break on July 1 and the
break will be confirmed with the elections in January. The Iraqi government has
to be in a position to manage its affairs, to handle the economy, the justice,
manage its natural resources, manage the internal security forces at least the
law enforcement officials. And also, it has to have a say in the use of the
multilateral force that will be in Iraq from July until January,' he
Whether or not Bush admits as much, it goes without saying that he'll be
forced to display a little more humility than he did last year, when attacking
France for not going along with his war of liberation in Iraq.
Back when the Iraq war kicked off, and the French fry was banned, it was
pretty clear that it was America that had a problem with the French. One wonders
how Fox News and their ilk will cover it.
As for the D-Day ceremony, this looks to be nothing more than more
symbolic schlock- and absolutely surreal at that. According to a spokesman,
the ceremony is meant to deliver "a message of peace" to the world. "…We are
here so that there is a space on a global scale for peace… otherwise it would
make no sense. Why do all this if it is not a message of peace?"
Well, one could answer that it provides a handy excuse for simulating unity
between alienated world leaders – some 17 of them, in fact, including major
critics of Bush's policy in Iraq such as Chirac, Russia's Vladimir Putin and
Gerhard Schroeder of Germany. Considering that France plans to give its Legion
of Honor award to 300 D-Day veterans (including almost 100 Americans) Bush will
no doubt milk the occasion for photo opportunities with veterans too old to have
been his personal liability and soliloquies on the valiant struggle for freedom,
from Normandy to Iraq. Yet imagining George Bush saying "I bring you peace" only
conjures up images of The Simpson's
megalomaniacal Mr. Burns, in that 1997 episode when he states as much while
deliriously whacked out on medication, bathed in a radioactive glow.
Ireland: the EU-US Summit
While President Bush will not visit Britain this
time around, he will still get a chance to talk with British leader and key
ally Tony Blair at the EU-US
summit in Ireland. Yet like Bush, Blair has hit rock bottom. His credibility,
at home and throughout the world, has been affected just as Bush's has by the
Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scandal. Even Blair himself
is admitting that his job is on the line.
Just as in Italy, protestors in Ireland are preparing. On Thursday, the Irish
Anti-War Movement (IAWM)
announced its plans for mass demonstrations in Dublin and in Dromoland Castle,
County Clare, where Bush will be staying from June 25-26. One of their statements
"…Bush hopes to use his Irish visit as a backdrop for his re-election
campaign. He wants pictures of smiling Irish politicians greeting him as a
'statesman'. The Stop Bush Campaign objects strongly to this charade.
… The Stop Bush Campaign believes that the vast majority of the Irish people
are opposed to the policies of George Bush. He has steadfastly refused to look
at the underlying causes of terrorism. Since September 11th, he has carried out
two wars –in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both times he claimed that this would end the
terrorist threat to the US and improve the human rights of the people who lived
in these countries. In both cases he has been proved to be a liar!"
The anti-war group is being joined by members of four or political parties,
as well as the Irish NGO Peace Alliance, "…to urge people to take to the streets
and protest against the occupation of Iraq." Protest chairman Richard
Boyd-Barrett promised "…a massive campaign to mobilise people and get every
single sector of Irish society to come out." In his view,
"…the situation is getting worse and both Tony Blair and Bush are on the rack
politically. Protests can have a direct effect on their position so it's vital
to see everyone determined to take to the streets and march."
A hot issue for the Irish anti-war movement is the role their own government
has surreptitiously played in the Iraq war. Despite its pious objections, they
claim, the government has allowed the US military to ship thousands of troops to
Iraq via Shannon Airport- a major airport located near the EU-US summit and
where President Bush will be landing.
The Climax: Turkey and the NATO Summit
One day after the Ireland trip President Bush
is expected in Istanbul,
Turkey, where he will ring in the NATO summit. In every
way this is the climactic event of his trip, and the
Turks are pulling
out all the stops in regards to security. All weddings have been cancelled
from 27-29 June, university exams have been rescheduled, and hotel workers with
questionable backgrounds are being sent on "early vacations" for the duration.
Yet there is only so much the authorities can do, as Istanbul is an enormous,
densely-packed city where the sort of protections allowed by rural Ireland cannot
be matched. If there is any risk of terrorist attacks, it is here. In fact,
a recently arrested terrorist mastermind in Turkey claimed that his group hit
upon their plan to bomb the NATO summit while
lamenting, "If only Bush's death were at our hands."
Even if no attacks occur, the inevitable hassles in the routines of ordinary
civilians necessitated by such an event can only increase the anti-Bush
sentiment most Turks have felt since the Iraq war began last year. Outraged at
the American attack on a fellow Muslim country, and fearing that their own
security could be compromised lest the Kurdish separation movement reignite,
Turks are understandably distrustful of Bush and his policies.
Even if ordinary people don't take to the streets, it is expected that anti-NATO
protesters from home and abroad will. And
NATO officials themselves
are decidedly gloomy about the summit:
"…Now, diplomats and politicians suggest, it is uncertain whether the
alliance will have regrouped with enough strength by the summit meeting to
provide a nameplate for an international force at the request of the United
Nations and a transitional Iraqi government. As for NATO members providing new
troops, that appeared a dim perspective.
'…In these circumstances,' one of the NATO officials said, 'the United State
is hardly in a position to push anything concerning the [military]
internationalization of Iraq to the breaking point.'"
Even Americans are conceding that the NATO summit will likely fall short of
achieving Bush's diplomatic expectations. According to Philip
Gordon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, there is no
longer any prospect of "…NATO taking a bigger role before November's U.S.
"'…the last thing the Europeans want to do is come to the June summit and
allow George W. Bush to preside over the alliance as a great leader,' he said.
'It is unimaginable that the Europeans will go to Istanbul and give Bush
whatever he wants.'"
Meanwhile, the "New Europe" Fidgets Uncomfortably
As for Dubya's ace in the hole – the alleged "New
Europe" – here too much ambivalence has arisen regarding the president's cause.
Factors both short-term and long account for the new reticence of emerging countries
that have supported the American war on Iraq diplomatically and with troops.
First of all, the Abu Ghraib scandal and rising troop casualties have increased
domestic opposition in many nations. Second of all, some of these countries,
including the Baltic States and major troop contributor Poland, have just joined the European Union.
For political and economic reasons, their future will increasingly lie with
Europe and not with America in the future.
Hungary, which has donated 300 soldiers to the Iraq occupation, the Abu
"…has eroded the broad political support behind the mission. The main
opposition party, Fidesz, said it was time for Hungary to reconsider its
position and has called for talks involving all political parties about the
future of the mission.
The leader of Fidesz, Viktor Orban, a former prime minister who until
recently supported the Iraq mission, this week called operations there 'morally
unsustainable.' The government has agreed to hold talks with opposition parties
about the issue.
The uproar in Hungary is 'a direct response to the photographs,' said
Sebestyen L. Gorka, executive director of the Institute for Transnational
Democracy and International Security, a research organization in Budapest. 'It's
on all the front pages here.'"
Like Poland, Hungary has vowed to
soldier on in Iraq. But for how much longer? In the former country, new
Prime Minister Marek Belka "…is up against increasing pressure from the public
and his own coalition partners who oppose Polish participation in the coalition
force in Iraq. They want a timeline for withdrawal of Polish troops." Poland
suffered two more casualties last week. Bulgaria,
which has suffered 6 casualties, sent 24
soldiers home after complaining that their mission was not what they'd
planned for. And another 15 who'd been slated to go in August quit this week.
Respected British defense analyst Jane's
has speculated that Ukraine, which has suffered four casualties thus far,
might pull its troops out despite official pledges to the contrary.
The Gloomy Conclusion
All of the evidence shows that Bush's European
support in Iraq has weakened, and is perhaps beyond repair. Moreover, nothing
he may do in his upcoming goodwill tour to the Continent is likely to change
that. The president can point hopefully to a June 30 handover of power in Iraq,
and claim that this will somehow put a happy face on the occupation. Yet few
have high expectations in this regard, considering Iraq's ever-worsening violence
and the volatility of the still unfolding prisoner abuse scandal. Ambitions
of a NATO or UN role in policing the mess are at best premature and at worse
a pipe dream.
And so, all symbolic World War II photo opportunities aside, Bush (and the
American taxpayer) may in fact be best served by heeding the new slogan of
Italy's protesters: "Yankee, Go Home!"